One resident received 75 letters. Here's why your safety could be at risk, and what to do if you get one.
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It began as a trickle of letters coming to residents scattered across the state.
Now reports are sweeping California and other parts of the country of ordinary citizens opening their mailboxes to find not just a few, but stacks of letters and debit cards from the Employment Development Department -- addressed to multiple complete strangers.
State legislators say it's an alarming sign that a scam has been spreading far and wide with con artists roping unwitting residents into their ploy, and raking in possibly billions in fraudulent benefits.
"Why did they choose my address?," asked Kenneth Warren of San Leandro who received 30 EDD letters one day, then another batch of 44 the next. They were addressed to a dozen different people whom he has never met - presumably one or more con artists who hijacked his address.
"It's scary,'' said Linda Dodge of San Jose, who got a steady stream of letters, now numbering about 75. "If someone is using my address to scam somebody else's money, then I'm very upset about that."
"There are 30 of them here, all from the EDD,'' said Nick Chrimes of San Jose, fanning out a pile of the EDD letters.
"I can feel some of them have a debit card inside,'' said Erasmo Garcia, San Bernardino County, as he felt the shape of a debit card inside a couple of the 32 letters he received.
A couple days later, he received a Postal Service "change of address'' notice for the debit card's addressee, providing a clue as to one way the scam works. The scammers avoid detection by using random addresses, then divert the money with a postal change of address.
ABC7 News first reported about the scam last month when a man in Florida received 12 letters from the EDD and spent days wondering what EDD was, and what he should do with them.
And a woman in Queens, N.Y. received more than 40 letters, raising her concerns that someone was roping her into a scam.
"I don't want the FBI knocking at my door,'' she said.
State legislators say the real worry may be a scammer knocking on the door.
"Fraudsters know these addresses, we know they are staking out these addresses and in some cases they are breaking in,'' said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, (R-Fresno). The EDD asked residents to put those letters in the mailbox, marked return to sender, but Patterson said that turns the homes into a target.
"It's like putting up a sign saying your debit card is here, come and get it,'' Patterson said.
Instead, he suggests dumping the mail in a regular blue mailbox, not your own house. And do report it to police. Patterson says some scammers are known to case the homes and could try to force their way in.
The EDD admits at least one scammer posed as an EDD employee and showed up at one of the addresses demanding the return of the mail. The agency is warning consumers to avoid anyone who claims to be an EDD employee, saying they will never show up to your door.
Patterson, a frequent critic of the unemployment agency, says the EDD may have paid huge sums to scammers while about a million legitimate workers still wait for benefits months after losing their jobs.
The EDD has acknowledged it was sending out volumes of mail related to bogus claims, but critics say it should have detected the bogus claims rather than keep the process going, eventually paying scammers.
"If they can determine there's multiple letters going to one address, why can't they determine which are legitimate and which are not, and why can't they determine that those that aren't legitimate shouldn't be sent,'' Patterson said.
He lamented that scammers are getting paid while a million legitimate workers are still waiting for help.
EDD said folks should return the errant mail to its fraud department, but that information was buried in a press release, and buried on its website. Moreover, the fraud address is complex, and some said, it's a burden to ask residents to write it on every envelope especially when they are receiving stacks of them.
An EDD spokesperson suggested they drive the envelopes to a nearby EDD office - though they are closed. That also entails some burden and would even be an option for the woman in New York or the man in Florida.
"Everyone else knew that this was happening,'' Patterson said. "Why did it take so long for them to figure it out and put a stop to it. Their computer systems and fraud oversight should have seen this a long time ago.''
The man in Florida, Barry O'Brien of West Palm Beach, put the 12 letters he got into a manila envelope and mailed it to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Someone in Becerra's office promptly mailed them right back to O'Brien in Florida, saying he sent it to the wrong place, and could he please forward it to EDD.
O'Brien was miffed.
"If they don't care about it, I certainly don't,'' O'Brien said.
The EDD is now suggesting recipients put the letters into their mailboxes marked 'return to sender.' Patterson criticized that idea, too.
"Fraudsters know these addresses, many times they're staking out these addresses, and many times they're breaking in,'' he said. "I do believe we're putting people's safety at risk.''
EDD also is making a sweeping change to shut down the fraud - saying it will no longer accept claims for multiple residents at the same address. However, Patterson says, that might also cut off claims for legitimate workers whose addresses are being used by the scammers.
And he adds that some of his constituents already are suspected of fraud simply for living in one of the targeted homes.
The rash of EDD letters is a sign of just one type of fraud plaguing the EDD.
Last month, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office uncovered a lucrative scam operated by inmates at the county jail. Prosecutors charged 21 inmates and associates with raking in more than $250,000 within weeks by filing bogus claims. Monterey County authorities are investigating dozens more inmates at the Salinas jail for running the same scam.
The scammers collected money by claiming they were self-employed and eligible for special pandemic assistance dating back to March. So now, EDD will no longer allow backdating of claims. Legitimate workers will have to use a special help button on the website or call EDD if they want to backdate a claim.
However, EDD has been widely criticized for failure to pick up the phone lines, or respond to computer messaging.
On top of that, evidence is growing that huge sums have been paid out to con artists since the pandemic began.
"How many billions of dollars in fraudulent claims have been paid out to made-up individuals.''
A state audit of the troubled agency is under way - and should reveal how much has gone out to thieves.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.